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What is South Africa’s role in Ukraine’s peace talks?

What is South Africa’s role in Ukraine’s peace talks?
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski at a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, 16 June 2023. (Photo: Andrew Kravchenko / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pretoria has participated in four rounds of peace talks without saying what it is doing, although there’s speculation it may be working with the UK on looking at security guarantees for Ukraine that don’t include it joining Nato.

Over the past several months, South Africa has participated in four rounds of Ukraine’s peace formula talks and has said very little about them. This has led to a great deal of speculation and raises the question: what exactly is South Africa’s function in the discussions? And will Pretoria — particularly President Cyril Ramaphosa — participate in the global peace summit that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is preparing to hold in Switzerland soon as a climax to the four rounds of talks at the level of national security advisers?

Perhaps the ANC government’s relative taciturnity about its role in the peace formula talks stems from a concern that Russia will be offended by its participation in discussions that conspicuously exclude Russia. 

Whatever the reason, it is normally Ukraine which discloses any information about SA’s participation. And Pretoria responds monosyllabically, if at all.

That seemed to change on Monday after Zelensky posted on X, formerly Twitter: “I spoke with President @CyrilRamaphosa and thanked the Republic of South Africa for sending a representative to the Peace Formula meetings.

“I also informed President Ramaphosa about the preparations for the Global Peace Summit in Switzerland. We agreed to maintain contact at various levels.”

Ramaphosa responded in the usual low-key and non-committal way, posting on X: “Today, I discussed the Russia-Ukraine peace process with President @ZelenskyyUa.

“We both committed ourselves to the established peace process and agreed to intensify efforts towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”

But Clayson Monyela, the spokesperson for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco), responded a lot more enthusiastically to Zelensky’s disclosure. He posted in response: “#SouthAfrica will always be part of efforts to find solutions to conflicts across the world. We are about peace-building, peace-keeping, & the maintenance thereof. The #DiplomacyOfUbuntu compels us to strive for a better South Africa, in a better Africa and a better world.”

Daily Maverick asked Monyela whether South Africa would send a representative to Zelensky’s global peace summit in Switzerland. “I believe so, yes,” he replied.

We also asked Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, whether Ramaphosa would attend the summit and he responded more cautiously: “There’s no date that’s been given yet, so it’s still quite early to say if the President will attend or not.”

Monyela’s rather more enthusiastic response was possibly a sign of the reinvigorated South African spirit of global peacemaking which has been engendered by the ANC government taking Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on charges of committing genocide in Gaza.

On 26 January, the ICJ judges ordered several provisional measures basically demanding that Israel avoid committing genocide in Gaza. On Monday, Pretoria urgently applied to the ICJ for further provisional measures to avoid mass killing in Israel’s intended major assault on Rafah in the south of Gaza where most of the population is now concentrated.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

To return to Ukraine, the war now almost forgotten by the world in the light of the Israel-Hamas war, Ramaphosa’s national security adviser, Sydney Mufamadi, has participated in all four of the peace formula talks which began in Copenhagen last year and continued in Jeddah, Malta and Davos. Mufamadi has been supported by Zane Dangor, the Dirco director-general. Both have been publicly tight-lipped about South Africa’s role in the talks.

10-point plan

Zelensky’s peace formula is divided into 10 points, which include a demand for the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s territory, the establishment of a special tribunal to try Russia for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, and measures to ensure nuclear safety, which has been jeopardised by Russia’s capture of Ukraine’s Zaporozhzhia nuclear power station.

To bring as many countries as possible into the talks on the peace formula, Ukraine said that countries could participate in only some of these points if they felt uncomfortable about others.

At first, Ukrainian sources indicated that South Africa would participate only in talks on Point 2 and Point 4.

Point 2 was about food security, which was mainly aimed at restoring the Black Sea Grain Initiative that Russia pulled out of last July. Through the initiative, Russia had agreed a year earlier to lift its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to allow it to export grain to the world.

Point 4 is aimed at the release of all prisoners of war and deportees, the latter referring mainly to the Ukrainian children whom Russia abducted in the areas it occupied and deported to Russia.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative and the release of prisoners and abducted children were key points in the African Peace Initiative of seven African presidents which Ramaphosa led to Russia and Ukraine and so it seemed natural for South Africa to participate in those same issues in the Ukraine peace formula talks.

But South African officials rebuffed that suggestion, retorting that Pretoria was involved in those issues only through the African Peace Initiative. This left unanswered the question: What then was South Africa’s role in the Ukrainian peace talks?

More recently, Ukrainian sources have indicated that South Africa is participating with the UK on Point 9 of the Ukraine peace plan, “Prevention of Escalation”.

The peace plan explains, “Ukraine is not a member of any of the alliances … therefore, when the current Russian invasion is repelled, it is essential to prevent any chance of its repetition or further escalation.

“This can only be achieved with proper and effective security guarantees for Ukraine, as well as renewed post-war security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic space that will include Ukraine.”

It is possible that there will be consideration of security guarantees for a post-war Ukraine that do not entail its joining Nato.

However, no one has officially confirmed that South Africa is participating in the discussions on Point 9.

But Britain’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Antony Phillipson, did confirm to Daily Maverick that, “We are working with SA and others as part of the Ukraine peace formula, and we welcome Ukraine’s efforts to convene us to discuss the importance of a just and lasting peace underpinned by the principles of the UN Charter…”

Peace talks without Russia

The obvious question about the Ukraine peace talks, however, is why they exclude Russia. Does it make sense to have peace talks in the absence of one of the two belligerents?

Ukraine has explained that it would be unhelpful to include Russia because Moscow would simply claim at the very least the 20% of Ukraine that it has taken by military force. Ukraine insists that it will not give up an inch of its territory.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor revealed in 2023 that at the third round of peace talks in Malta, South Africa had proposed that Ukraine start finding a way of bringing Russia into the discussions. This apparently did not go down well with Ukraine. 

The question also came up at the last round of talks on 14 January in Davos which were attended by 83 countries — compared to 65 in Malta — of which nearly half were from Europe, 18 from Asia and 12 from Africa.

Ukraine’s head of the Office of the President, Andriy Yermak, who is running the peace talks and co-chaired the Davos meeting, insisted at a final news conference that no allies had ever asked Ukraine to make any compromise “which they know is not acceptable for us”.

Ukraine’s aim was to win the war, as a simple ceasefire would create a “frozen conflict” and wouldn’t end Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, AP quoted him as saying. 

Co-host Ignazio Cassis, the Swiss foreign minister, said that the purpose of the talks was to get ready for the moment when Russia might join a peace discussion. Moscow has dismissed the initiative as biased. 

“For the moment, it’s illusory to think that Russia would respond positively to an invitation,” Cassis said. “But that’s not the goal” of the Davos conference.

“For now, Russia is not ready to take any step or make any concession,” he was quoted as saying. 

Cassis acknowledged “many challenges” and said negotiators were working to “modulate” the fine print of the peace formula to make it more workable as a blueprint for the way forward. DM

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  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Absolutely ZERO roll whatsoever as SA is not a neutral and bona fides party wishing to genuinely put an end to this illegal and unprovoked genocidal war launched by our master, the evil mass-murdering monster, Putin. We couldn’t even begin to condemn the murder and destruction of innocent civilians in Ukraine whilst hysterically and blindly bleating and condemning Israel, the US, the West etc. as is our puerile and idiotic go-to position on just about everything. We lack honesty, integrity and morals, and have no gravitas, credibility or respect on the world stage, apart from the despicable countries of similar ilk i.e. Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe etc. Cyril and his hideous party are just spineless buffoons, full of their own importance and who are nothing but huge embarrassment and dead weight on SA.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Not true at all, this confirms what I have disputed about the South African government accused of not playing a role in this war or the wars in Africa.
      The role is diplomatic in nature so you won’t be hearing it shouted on roof tops.
      I always support minister Pandor for her well functional department.
      We always mix the party role and the government yet they function under different obligations.
      I always don’t support blindly but acknowledge what is right and condemn what is wrong and stay pro nothing.

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